Generally speaking, people don't enjoy tales of childhood woe.
"My parents have royally – delicious cabbage, Brenda – f**ked me up" ranks high on the dinner party what-not-to-say guide, keeping company with "I feel sorry for David Cameron" and "If climate change means hotter summers, I'll have to rethink my stance on culottes".
We don't enjoy listening to tales of childhood woe because the uncomfortable truth is that all of us – despite how sorted we believe ourselves to be – are dealing with issues arising from unmet needs from infancy and childhood. We too, on an unconscious level, struggle alongside the drunk diner who draws sad faces in the gravy.
Yet we function, on the whole successfully, by hiding our small madnesses and clumsily crayoned anguish not only from others but from ourselves.
However, wouldn't it be nice to function better? To upgrade to a way of being that's more peaceful and less at odds with itself?
Back in June, I wrote "It's Nice to be Nice", a piece about developing self-compassion. In Buddhist terms, this is known as the practice of "maitri". To demonstrate true compassion for others, we have to have mastered the art of feeling compassion for ourselves. Meditation is a good place to start. Which is a bummer if you're crap at it.
My meditation practice has progressed over the last five years, yet recently I've become reluctant to take it further. I'm being nudged towards something that could lead to a different way of being – hurrah, exciting! – but would mean letting go of whom I believe myself to be – hurrah, not so keen!
Consequently, my resistance to taking my seat has developed strongman proportions. As I said to my pal Liz, "If spiritual development means being unable to invite Satan to shag drivers who don't indicate on roundabouts, then I'm not sure it's for me. Plus, I'm not giving James Blunt up for anyone." Which may illustrate my flimsy grasp on the whole "spiritual development" deal.
So meditation and I have been at something of an impasse. It hasn't been feeling right. The moments of spaciousness have become fewer and further between. As far as I'm concerned, finding my bliss these days means eating mashed potato in my pyjamas. I have become frustrated by the language of meditation, how teachings are so damn wordy, the opposite of what I feel should be a felt experience.
A few weeks back I schlepped down to Kagyu Samye Dzong London Tibetan Buddhist Centre to attend a two-day course on maitri and somatic meditation – meditative consciousness accessed through the body rather than through the mind. This approach seemed more in tune with my yoga teaching so I was cautiously optimistic that this could be the breakthrough that I was looking for.
The workshop touched on the Internal Family Systems therapeutic approach, the ins and outs of which I'm not going to get into as both unqualified and too lazy. But in brief, our consciousness is made up of a Big Self (spacious, open-hearted awareness, our essential self) overlaid by multiple subpersonalities, parts or, as I like to think of them, mini-mes.
We confuse our essential self with our mini-mes who are subdivided into:
Exiles – those mini-mes who experienced the pain of abandonment, shock, and trauma (often based in childhood) that if relived could flood the system.
Managers – the subpersonalities who take on the job of protecting the system from re-experiencing the pain and hurt felt by the exiles. Bossy sausages, managers like to control and keep the exiles locked away in a cupboard where they can't do any damage. They're invariably Virgos* and favour lists and high fibre diets.
Firefighters – the mini-mes who step in when the managers have fallen asleep on the watch. Firefighters deploy distraction strategies when the exiles' emotions threaten to overwhelm the palisades – in the cold light of day, not often sensible ones and usually laced with remorse. Think of them as the friend who suggests flaming shots and neck tattoos as sound strategy for dealing with life's vicissitudes.
Well it seems I, like most, have more managers than the NHS. No wonder humans are so bloody inefficient.
At first I found this revelation unsettling. I pride myself as a free-thinker, living in the moment, unshackled by childhood recrimination and blame. But here I am, every behaviour a management strategy pre-programmed to run whenever a long-forgotten exile gets triggered. It's an alarming but powerful a-ha! realisation.
With such a realisation, however, it would be easy to get sucked into over-analysing and navel-gazing, signing up for therapy and past-life regression and chakra-balancing vaginal steaming. But as Alistair, the course teacher, made clear, there's actually nothing to fix. Our managers and firefighters have our best interests at heart after all, even if they often go about things in a messed up way. All we need to do is acknowledge all our mini-mes with tender and compassionate interest. I have since cultivated a similar, if less technically correct, approach that is proving invaluable in the face of my meditation resistance. I treat my mini-mes as I treat spiders. From the corner of my eye, I acknowledge that they're there but feel no need to look at them directly and give myself a case of the heebie-jeebies. Instead, I silently wish them well and accept their role in the ecology of my home.
It's so much kinder than hurling the Diagnostic & Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders at them.
*I'm a Virgo. Yes.